Responsibility and Clicking

Sometimes when people hear obvious arguments regarding emotive topics, they just tentatively accept the conclusion instead of defending against it until they find some half satisfactory reason to dismiss it. Eliezer Yudkowsky calls this ‘clicking’, and wants to know what causes it:

My best guess is that clickiness has something to do with failure to compartmentalize – missing, or failing to use, the mental gear that lets human beings believe two contradictory things at the same time. Clicky people would tend to be people who take all of their beliefs at face value.

The Hansonian explanation (not necessarily endorsed by Robin Hanson) would say something about clicky people tending to operate in Near mode.  (Why?)

pjeby remarks (with 96 upvotes),

One of the things that I’ve noticed about this is that most people do not expect to understand things. For most people, the universe is a mysterious place filled with random events beyond their ability to comprehend or control. Think “guessing the teacher’s password”, but not just in school or knowledge, but about everything.

Such people have no problem with the idea of magic, because everything is magic to them, even science….

Hypothesis: people expect reality to make sense roughly in proportion to how personally responsible for manipulating it they feel. If you think of yourself as in charge of strategically doing something, you are eager to understand how doing that thing works, and automatically expect understanding to be possible. If you are driving a car, you insist the streets fit intuitive geometry. If you are engaging in office politics, you feel there must be some reason Gina said that thing.

If you feel like some vague ‘they’ is responsible for most things, and is meant to give you stuff that you have a right to, and that you are meant to be a good person in the mean time, you won’t automatically try to understand things or think of them as understandable. Modeling how things work isn’t something you are ‘meant’ to do, unless you are some kind of scientist. If you do dabble in that kind of thing, you enjoy the pretty ideas rather than feel any desperate urge for them to be sound or complete. Other people are meant to look after those things.

A usual observation is that understanding things properly allows you to manipulate them. I posit that thinking of them as something you might manipulate automatically makes you understand them better. This isn’t particularly new either. It’s related to ‘learned blankness‘, and searching vs. chasing, and near mode vs. far mode. The followup point is that chasing the one correct model of reality, which has to make sense, straight-forwardly leads to ‘clicking’ when you hear a sensible argument.

According to this hypothesis, the people who feel most personally responsible for everything a la Methods Harry Potter would also be the people who are most notice whether things make sense. The people who less trust doctors and churches to look after them on the way to their afterlives are the ones who notice that cryonics makes sense.

To see something as manipulable is to see it in the same light that science does, rather than as wallpaper. This is expensive, not just because a detailed model is costly to entertain, but because it interferes with saying socially advantageous things about the wallpaper. So you quite sensibly only do it when you actually want to manipulate a thing and feel potentially empowered to do so, i.e. when you hold yourself responsible for it.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/johnthacker John Thacker

    This reminds me of a comment by a very intelligent Scottish coworker of mine, who was disappointed in some latest Dan Brown book because its details of cryptology was so bad. He said that that disappointed him, because he really wanted to believe that some of the earlier conspiracy theory stuff in the other books was true.

    People do indeed react very differently to things in and outside their area of expertise.

  • komponisto

    This nicely explains other people’s hostile reactions to those who seek to understand: it is as if the would-be understanders were making a claim of responsibility over the domain in question (and thus high status).

    • V V

       What hostile reaction? Scientists are generally considered high-status

      • Michael Vassar

         Scientists are massively self deluded about both how high status the public considers them.  Presumably, it’s lower than a detective’s or kid’s wouldn’t be told ‘a scientist is like a detective’ as they often are.  Also, they are mistaken about both the typical level of seeking understanding of scientists, as opposed to famous scientists.  Finally, the public largely associates them with authoritative opinions, not with seeking understanding.

      • V V

         Many scientists earn an upper-middle class or high-class salary, often from a public funded institution. In most developed countries, a significant amount of GDP goes into scientific research, even pure research that has no immediately foreseeable technological applications (the LHC, for instance)

        Some scientists effectively become celebrities.

        How many famous detectives do you know?

      • Army1987

        Many scientists earn an upper-middle class or high-class salary, often from a public funded institution.

        And many more earn as little as a high-school teacher.

      • V V

         References?

    • Michael Vassar

       This sounds about right to me.

  • Mark M

    Clicking, as I understand it, is the ability to arrive at a conclusion using a very short chain of reasoning when other minds get derailed and have a hard time getting back on track.

    As someone who ‘clicks’ frequently I can tell you it’s mostly about understanding whether answering certain questions matter.  Others get derailed and pursue questions that are difficult or impossible to answer and never seem to get back to the question at hand.  It’s immensely frustrating when I have to explain over and over and over why we don’t need to answer a certain question. 

    Such as – should you sign up for Cryo?  If you like the idea of waking up in the future and have the financial resources to do it, the answer is yes.  The current state of Cryo tech, current theories about cryo, etc. don’t matter.  Some experts say it’ll work and other experts say it won’t.  Even if someone has a definitive correct answer, there is no way for you to get to the truth of the matter.

    Sure, you don’t want to waste your money on something that’s not going to work, but you aren’t doing yourself any favors by trying to reason out something that the experts can’t agree on.  Sign up, and your life, up to the point of your death, will be the same whether it eventually works or not.  If it doesn’t work, you’ll never know.  If it does work you’ll wake up alive before you’ve even learned that you died.  For this life, for right now, it doesn’t matter.

    Stop worrying about things you can’t know and move on!

    Click.

    • Faul Sname

       Right now, my life would look *very* different, because my current financial situation is such that cryonics would cost me about 20% of my discretionary budget. On the other hand, since I don’t drive and am not likely to commit suicide, my chance of death in any given year is between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 5000. So even if cryonics worked, it probably wouldn’t be worthwhile for me now.

      Also, plastination looks to be viable as a cheaper, better alternative.

    • DanielLC

      I like the idea of waking up in the distant future, but I also like the idea of other people waking up in the near future. It’s cheaper for me to ensure that someone else will wake up in the near future by donating to AMF then it is to create the possibility that I may wake up in the distant future by signing up for cryonics.

      The only way you’d definitely want to sign up is if you only care about waking up in the future.

  • V V

    The people who less trust doctors and churches to look after them on the
    way to their afterlives are the ones who notice that cryonics makes
    sense.

    Does it?

    • Faze

      That was kind of dropped in there like a little bomb.  It might better be said, “The people who less trust doctors and churches to look after them on the way to their afterlives form the group from which are drawn believers in cryonics and other outré alternatives to extinction.”

  • Tony

    “A usual observation is that understanding things properly allows you to manipulate them. ”

    Or, I might add “respond to them appropriately”. You can’t stop it from raining, but if you know how to use a barometer you can know when it’s worth bringing an umbrella.

  • Matthew Graves

    “Sometimes when people hear obvious arguments regarding emotive topics, they just tentatively accept the conclusion instead of defending against it until they find some half satisfactory reason to dismiss it. Eliezer calls this ‘clicking’, and wants to know what causes it:”

    I’m confused by the word “tentative” here. Clicking seems more final than a “what would the world be like if this conclusion is true?”

  • Lord Delta

    Put simply, we are goal oriented, and our society places too much emphasis on specialization.

  • Richard Silliker

    intuition.

  • Gulliver

    The problem I have with this thesis as a general hypothesis
    is that, although it may apply to large swathes of the human species, it fails
    to account for the multitudes who are tenaciously curious and skeptical about
    things over which they either don’t hope or care to have any actual control,
    such as a foreign state’s politics or amateur astronomers. Yes it’s expensive,
    but humans do not live by bread alone.

     

    Also, you seem to ignore that possibility of self-conscious hypocrites
    who gladly say socially advantageous things they know to be untrue about the
    wallpaper. I would even posit that some people assuage any guilt about dissembling
    by convincing themselves that their inability to manipulate the wallpaper
    renders their dishonesty about how it works harmless. Or, in some Cassandra-esque
    cases, may well believe (and may be correct) that while they may be unable to
    manipulate the wallpaper, others in their social sphere may have the power to
    punish them for honest incisive analyses.

     

    In others words, I think you’ve hit on one mechanism by
    which people engage the unknown, but I doubt it is the only one even for statistically
    substantial portions of the human population.

    • http://bur.sk/ Viliam Búr

      I guess poeple are interested in politics, even if they don’t have any control about it, because in the ancient environment politics was matter of survival. So we are hard-wired to care about politics. But we aren’t hard-wired in the same way to care about computers etc. So in those situations we are interested only in what seems to be our responsibility / under our control.

      • Gulliver

        Perhaps. I agree political engagement, whether in one’s immediate group or the whole world, may be partially instinctual. But I think there is also an innate desire to solve mysteries, stronger in some than others for certain, but that is less practical than concern for one’s ambit of responsibility or sphere of control. As with social instincts, I suspect this heuristic instinct is something evolved under selection pressure, and that the political instinct may even be those two instincts working in tandem.

        That said, there is probably a difference in how seriously we’re predisposed to take “far” mysteries outside our sphere and near mysteries within our influence. Curiosity may predispose someone to try and solve a mystery for its own sake, but it’s reasonable to assume they’re less likely to take it as seriously as, say, navigating roadways. And while there will always be those that do take things beyond their control as seriously as things within, I’d be willing to form an educated guess that they’re statistical outliers, though of course I lack hard data.

        Regarding why people’s amateur interests vary, I would tentatively posit that the sheer amount of mystery compels a certain amount of specialization even amongst armchair aficionados, but that the real divide is between those whose critical thinking faculties have atrophied from uninformative pastimes (such as reality TV) – and I’m not making a judgement here, only observing that some habitual time-sinks result in less understanding of ambient mysteries – and those who have exercised those faculties to a pitch that they engage even mysteries outside their responsibility or ability to realistically manipulate, and those of the former tendency are more likely to wave off as magic.

        One last thought. There is a difference between regarding something as magic and simply accepting an agnostic stance toward it. For example, I accept that the field of neurology will, for the most part, remain outside my area of expertise because I’m a physicist and don’t have time to also become a neurologist and keep abreast of my own field. This is a prime example of eschewing the pursuit of knowledge (beyond a certain level of detail, anyway) outside my area of chosen responsibility. But in no way, shape or form do I regard neurology as magic. I fully expect it to conform to the laws of nature and be scientifically intelligible. In other words, agnosticism is not the same as conflating something with magic. Even someone who is not a trained scientist – say a politician, for example – may well understand the difference between prioritizing and fundamental knowability.

  • DanielLC

    I don’t really care about manipulating much, but I still expect it to make sense.

  • http://polite-gunfight.tumblr.com/ Aaron

    Just a style note: it’s fine to reference and link to Less Wrong, but I think you should make that explicit in the blog post. Everyone reading Overcoming Bias isn’t on the “inside” of Less Wrong, and Eliezer has been away from posting on Overcoming Bias long enough that a complete reference is called for, in my opinion. It seems fairly standard blogosphere practice, and makes the posts more accessible.

    • http://www.facebook.com/katja.grace Katja Grace

      You mean like ‘Eliezer Yudkowsky at LessWrong calls this…’ ? Actually it wasn’t that I thought LessWrong was so well read here – I just usually give a minimal citation with a link. Happy to change if it makes for inaccessibility.

      • komponisto

        Actually, just “Eliezer Yudkowsky” (instead of “Eliezer”) would probably quell such complaints. It isn’t about accessibility; rather, it’s about the implication of familiarity: “I object to the suggestion that I, a reader of Overcoming Bias, am also a member of the Less Wrong tribe!”

      • V V

         Eliezer loves you anyway XD

      • http://polite-gunfight.tumblr.com/ Aaron

        I think the Eliezer Yudkowsky is just fine, as komponisto suggested. Though for me it’s a lot more benign than suggested. It just seems like standard blogging practice, or at least standard on the ones I read. And I read both LW and OB :)

  • dmytryl

    > people do not expect to understand things.

    I surely do not expect to form an understanding of (for example) cryonics without spending very significant time on relevant research, looking not just into the summaries prepared by cryonics advocated but learning multiple scientific fields as to form an intuition as of whenever to e.g. expect that the cryoprotectant would reach all of the brain and prevent immense shredding and squishing by the growing ice crystals. I know that a lot of effort is required because I often have to form an understanding of a software system or an algorithm or the like, in my line of work.

    Do you expect to understand cryonics without expending such effort? If you do, you are either a cryobiology expert, which you are not, an alien superintelligence, which you are not, or simply a person with poor understanding of what it takes to understand, which is actually very common.

  • Gulliver

    @ Katja Grace

    Sometimes when people hear
    obvious arguments regarding emotive topics, they just tentatively accept the conclusion instead of defending against it until they find some half satisfactory reason to dismiss it. Eliezer calls this ‘clicking’, and wants to know what causes it:

    Or they just tentatively dismiss it if their emotive reaction is negative. It works both ways. Rationality requires skepticism about one’s own doubts, not merely the claims of others.

    One example is the question as to whether something humans
    would recognize as intelligent played any part in the origin of existence or at
    least our particular universe. Our limited understanding regarding what for now remains the purview of philosophers renders agnosticism the only logical stance
    toward the question. Yet, in no small part because of the baggage associated
    with such a concept due to the historical role of unscientific concepts of “god”,
    some people find it unacceptable to acknowledge that ignorance, and so jump to
    a conclusion based on what they wish to be true.

    @ Michael Vassar

    Scientists are massively
    self deluded about both how high status the public considers them. 
    Presumably, it’s lower than a detective’s or kid’s wouldn’t be told ‘a
    scientist is like a detective’ as they often are.  Also, they are mistaken
    about both the typical level of seeking understanding of scientists, as opposed
    to famous scientists.  Finally, the public largely associates them with
    authoritative opinions, not with seeking understanding.

    That’s
    quite a haul of grand generalized statements about sweeping categories of human beings. Without hard data or at least anecdotal evidence, I’m inclined to suspect you may simply be stating your own preconceptions. People, scientists
    or otherwise, are rarely so cut and dried. And yes, that is my own experiential
    bias; others might or might not share it.

    @ VV

    References?

    Indeed. I would like references from both you and Army1987
    to back up your claims.

    @ dmytryl

    And the reaction to such is,
    well, someone who expects to understand something very complex with very little
    effort is almost always just a person in need of attitude adjustment.

    On the contrary. I have no need to expending effort “adjusting” their attitudes. I am quite capable of leaving them to their own choices. Railing against human nature is an inefficient use of energy.

    So it is entirely possible that someone’s
    long and detailed reasoning can be correctly dismissed with little effort.

    Except, of course, that the validity of a chain of reasoning depends on the accuracy
    of the premises, which may not always be well-understood by anyone, let alone
    the individual doing the dismissing. Logic is only as clear as the data to
    which it’s applied.
    Apologies for the fragmented formatting. My internet is tethered to my phone and likes to drop an inconvenient points while composing messages, leaving me to cut and paste from a non-browser text editor. :-/

    • V V

       

      Indeed. I would like references from both you and Army1987
      to back up your claims.

      Do you contend that scientists working for academic institutions or private research enterprises typically earn a upper-middle class or upper class salary?

      • Gulliver

        Do you contend that scientists working for academic institutions or
        private research enterprises typically earn a upper-middle class or
        upper class salary?

        In my experience as an academic, it depends greatly on the institution or private enterprise, publishing record, paid lectures, books deals, and other elements of which no practicing scientist is assured. Clearly there are some upper-class earning scientists, many middle-class, and some that struggle to feed their families (notably those in the earlier stages of their career and some who find employment as underpaid public-sector researchers. NASA and CERN pump most of that substantial fraction of GDP into equipment and overhead, not salaries. If I’d wanted governments to pad my wallet, I’d have become an investment banker, not a physicist.

        My point was that, while scientists no doubt fall into both economic brackets cited by Army1987 and yourself, any assertion as to demographics is speculation without hard numbers. If you’re going to call Army1987 on it, be prepared to be called on it yourself.

      • V V

        Googling “scientist salary” yields this as the first result: http://www.indeed.com/salary/Scientist.html
        stating an average American salary of $78,000/year.That’s considered upper-middle class by most definitions.

  • Gulliver

    @ V V

    Have to continue this discussion in a new thread.

    Googling “scientist salary” yields this as the first result: http://www.indeed.com/salary/S… stating an average American salary of $78,000/year.That’s considered upper-middle class by most definitions.

    The breakdown by specialty is instructive, ranging from $45K for lab scientist to $79K for senior food scientist.

    Comparatively, high school teacher:
    http://www.indeed.com/salary?q1=high+school+teachers&l1=
    …ranges from $22K for teaching associate to $117K for high school principal, though the fact that said search also yields results such as “video gamer” makes me suspicious of the criteria that site uses for its analyses. It also gives $57K for instrumental music teacher which, unless things have changed dramatically since my mother (a trained concert pianist and music major) taught piano, is rather optimistic. I also wonder how much of their data is pulled from public vs. private sector employment. That said, thank you for bringing hard data to bear.

    So, “teacher” covers a wider range bracketing “scientist”. My own job as an assistant professor at a major public university places me in the low $40K’s, though I can look forward to the low $70K’s later in my career judging by my more senior colleagues. I could probably make more in the private sector, but I enjoy teaching.

  • JenniferRM

    Look into internal vs external locus of control.  It gives a whole constellation of keywords to drop into google scholar on this subject.